Innocence Lost: Reconciliation, accountability stressed as Children’s Theatre suits settled

A group of people stand around a podium.
L to R, Attorney Molly Burke, survivor Jina Penn-Tracy, survivor Laura Stearns, Attorney Jeff Anderson and CTC executive director Kimberly Motes at the announcement of the settlements in the last nine cases against the Children's Theatre Company.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Survivors of childhood sexual assault during the 1970s and ‘80s at Children’s Theatre Company say they’ll try to work with the theater to restore trust and ensure such abuse never happens again. One key survivor said she was ending her boycott of CTC.

The survivors’ comments came Friday as their attorney, along with the theater’s current managing director, announced legal settlements with nine more survivors, ending the litigation.

Details of the settlements, including their value, were not disclosed, although CTC has agreed to spend $500,000 to seed a survivors’ fund and will add survivors of sexual assault to its board.

The theater as well as the survivors placed the emphasis Friday on reconciliation, accountability and healing.

A woman wearing a gray shirt.
Laura Stearns
Evan Frost | MPR News

Laura Stearns, one of the most outspoken victims and the only plaintiff to go to trial, said she was lifting her boycott of the theater and was prepared to build trust as a “demonstration of faith” in CTC following recent conversations with current leaders. She said it was “worth the risk of being wrong.”

She made it clear the pain remained. “This is not a finish line,” she said, adding that she planned to go the Legislature to seek an end to the statute of limitations on sexual assault.

“No child should ever have been exposed to this horrific behavior,” CTC managing director Kimberly Motes told reporters as she stood next to survivors. “The pain is deep and broad” and extends to the survivors’ loved ones, she said.

She apologized on behalf of the theater for what happened to the former students, but she declined to comment when asked if the institution acknowledges its historical role in perpetuating a culture of sexual exploitation.

A woman in a gray suit speaking
Children's Theatre Company managing director Kimberly Motes
Evan Frost | MPR News

The nine cases were the remainder of an original 17 plaintiffs who sued either the theater, one of its former staff members or both for sexual abuse. The plaintiffs and other survivors have implicated more than 20 former CTC employees in the abuse.

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Two women lean on each other.
Children's Theater Company abuse survivors Laura Stearns, left, and Jina Penn-Tracy lean on each other after making statements.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Of those 17 cases, which were filed after the Minnesota Child Victims Act suspended the statute of limitations in cases of child sex abuse, eight had been resolved before today’s announcement. CTC announced in August that it had reached settlements with six men who had been abused by John Clark Donahue, the founder and former artistic director of the theater. He died last March.

Another former student sued Jason McLean, a former actor with the company, who did not show up for the court proceeding. She was awarded a cash payment of more than $2 million, which he has failed to pay. She did not include the Children’s Theatre Company in her suit.

The only suit to go to trial was filed by Stearns, another survivor of McLean’s abuse. In January, a civil court jury found CTC negligent but not financially liable. The jury ordered McLean, who by that time had liquidated his assets and reportedly fled to Mexico, to pay Stearns $3.68 million. McLean has reportedly returned to the United States to run a bar he owns in Oakland, Calif.

Although the jury did not order CTC to pay Stearns any money, she was included in the settlements announced today. The amounts CTC agreed to give her and the other plaintiffs has not been disclosed.

While Friday’s developments resolve the outstanding legal claims against Children’s Theatre, demands for further action by CTC are likely to continue.

A group calling itself Standing with CTC Survivors has asked that the theater to participate in a community-led healing process.

A woman wearing a blue patterned scarf and black coat.
Jina Penn-Tracy
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Jina Penn-Tracy, another survivor who spoke of the trauma of being sexually assaulted at CTC for several years starting at age 14, told reporters that Children’s Theatre wouldn’t exist today had adults — including investigators at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension — taken the abuse allegations more seriously.

She said she was willing now to “strive toward trust” and urged all adults to watch out for children in their care and speak out if they’re concerned a child might be a victim of sexual assault.

Illustration of unnamed children

Were you a student at the Children’s Theatre Company and have a story to share? Contact Marianne Combs to share your story.

Edited by Eric Ringham and Laura McCallum. Photos by Christine T. Nguyen and Evan Frost. Illustrations and production by William Lager.

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